Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Live. But not in Havana.

I won’t bore you with details of Fidel Castro’s “surprise” telephone call to his friend Hugo Chavez during the Venezuelan president's live radio show in Caracas. You can read all about it here.

But one observation comes to mind.

Instead of taking Cubans into his confidence, Castro rings the head of state of another country to discuss his health and his supposed recovery. And he uses the opportunity to send a message to Cubans to “remain calm” and "be patient".

Now, the question is this: Why doesn’t Castro talk to his own people? Why doesn't he ring a radio station in Havana? After all, his regime controls all the media outlets on the island. Doesn’t he trust Cubans?

It’s bizarre, to say the least.

From the Horse's mouth

I am indebted to the hard working team at Penultimos Dias for this link to a small collection of memorable quotes by Fidel Castro.

A special treat, indeed.

There is the quote from May 1959 when a young and confident dictator-in-the-making told a public meeting that he was not and had never been a Communist, no matter what his enemies said.

Then there is the quote from December 1961 when the even more confident dictator said that, well, he had been a Marxist all along. In fact, he claimed, as far back as 26 July 1953.

You get the drift …

But by far my favourite quotes – probably because I can remember the context – are the ones dealing with just some of Castro’s grand schemes and delusions.

Many of these are detailed in my book, Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba, which I am sure you know by now (commercial break coming up ...) will soon be available in the US, Britain and Canada. Or you can pre-order, blah, blah, blah.

For instance, on March 2, 1964, Castro promised Cubans that in 10 years’ time, “we will produce more milk than the Dutch" and "more and better cheese than the French”. All thanks to socialism.

Less than a year later, in January 1965, he told Cubans that the Revolution had won “the great battle of the eggs”. From now on, he said, revolutionary chickens would produce an amazing 60 million eggs a month, so that all Cubans could enjoy eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Cubans have been waiting for their eggs ever since. And their milk. And their cheese ...

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Cigar notes

This week’s Habano Festival in Havana expects to attract about 1,300 guests from 60 nations, according to the Cuban official media.

But all that talk about auctioning off humidors personally signed by the ailing Fidel Castro may have been a tad premature.

In the past, these autographed humidors have been purchased by wealthy cigar-smokers with more money than sense for as much as USD500,000 each.

The Castro regime insists the money raised from the verfy capitalist auctions goes straight back into the health system.

Anyway, Reuters quotes a Habanos SA spokesman, Manuel Garcia, as saying that this year's humidors have yet to be signed by the 80-year-old dictator, who has not been seen in public since late July last year.

"The Comandante en Jefe is recovering very well," Garcia assured reporters. "So, we think it’s possible he will autograph the humidors but so far, we have had no confirmation.”

Asked whether Raul Castro - who is supposedly in charge - would attend the gala dinner on the last day of the Festival, Garcia replied that the younger Castro was not a great fan of such events. And anyway, he doesn’t smoke.

We shall see …

UPDATE: Associated Press reports that this year's Habano Festival is unlikely to attract any Hollywood "celebrities" ... because they know the older Castro is highly unlikely to turn up at any of the official functions. Last year, the actor Joseph Finnes turned up. In 2005, it was Jeremy Irons.

Monday, February 26, 2007

In the humidor

While foreign correspondents who step out of line get their marching orders from the Castro regime, dozens of wealthy cigar-smokers from around the world will flock to Havana this week to celebrate the annual Habanos Festival.

Organised by the regime's tobacco monopoly, Habanos SA, the festival is now in its ninth year and as in the past, it is again expected to attract a handful of Hollywood "celebrities".

The lucky participants will get to try new versions of both the Montecristo and the Cohiba, visit cigar factories in Havana, tour tobacco planatations in Pinar del Rio, watch fashion shows - and even learn how to make their own cigars.

But once again, the highlight of the festival will be the gala dinner at which no less than five cigar humidors will be auctioned off.

The humidors have been supposedly signed by the ailing Fidel Castro himself and are expected to fetch as much as USD500,000 each, which would otherwise buy you a lot of cigars.

As you would expect, the publicity savvy organisers at Habanos SA has given an assurance that the money raised this year - like the money raised in the past - will go "straight into the Cuban health care system".


The objectivity test

The controversy surrounding the decision by the Castro regime to effectively expel at least two and possibly three foreign correspondents in Havana continues.

The correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, Gary Marx, was told his work was “too negative”, while the Spanish-born correspondent for the Mexican daily El Universal, Cesar Gonzalez-Calero, was told that his work was “not convenient”.

The third journalist believed to be affected is Stephen Gibbs from the BBC.

The bad news was delivered to the correspondents by the innocuously sounding International Press Centre (CPI), a body set up supposedly to accredit foreign correspondents and assist them with visas, travel, etc.

In fact, the CPI is much more than that – it’s an arm of the Castro regime.

As the Spanish daily ABC reports, its principal task is to keep a close eye on all foreign correspondents and what they write – and to occasionally threaten them with having their accreditation taken away if they step out of line.

According to the paper, officials from the CPI read every single report filed by the correspondents, and then rate them on whether they are “objective” or not.

In the case of the three journalists targeted, it seems they were all warned over time that their reports had failed to meet “journalistic ethics” and told to mend their ways.

Now you know what happens to those who fail Castro's objectivity test.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Negative coverage 2

It seems the Havana correspondent for The Chicago Tribune is not the only foreign journalist to be given his marching orders by the Castro regime.

The correspondent for the Mexican daily El Universal has also been told that his working visa will not be renewed and that he must cease all journalistic activity by 28 February, as you can read here (in Spanish).

The Spanish-born correspondent, Cesar Gonzalez-Calero, was told that the tone of his coverage was "not convenient" to the regime. You know, as in too negative.

However, Gonzalez-Calero will be allowed to stay in Cuba since his wife heads the Havana bureau of the Spanish news agency Efe.

A spokesman for El Universal said the decision represented "an attack on freedom of the press".

Negative coverage

Bad news for those hoping for change in Cuba now Fidel Castro has disappeared from the stage.

The Havana correspondent for The Chicago Tribune, Gary Marx, has been told by Cuban authorities that his journalist's visa will not be renewed.

According to news reports, Mr Marx has been given 90 days to pack up his things - and his family - and depart.

And the reason? He was told that his coverage of Cuban affairs for the paper was "too negative".

So, there you have it: as a foreign correspondent, you are more or less welcomed in Cuba ... but only if you remain "positive".

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Commercial break

We interrupt regular blogging to let you know that Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro's Cuba is now available as a "downloadable" electronic book - an ebook.

Which sounds very hi-tech.

So, if you cannot wait until 1 April, when the book is due to be published (in paper format) in the US and Canada, you can dowload its content now directly on to your PC, Mac or handheld. Click here for details.

Now ... back to regular blogging.

You say embargo, I say ...

Ah, yes, the embargo.

Hot topic on both sides of the Straits of Florida since 1962, when John F Kennedy ordered all trade relations with the Communist island to be suspended at once.

Now, the US Commerce Secretary, Carlos Gutierrez, has rejected calls by some American legislators and business representatives for the Bush administration to lift the trade embargo on Cuba.

As you can read here, Mr Gutierrez told the Council of the Americas that lifting the embargo would neither weaken the Castro regime nor result in a trade “boon” for American business interests.

He is right on both counts.

There may well be other reasons for lifting the embargo but the view that an influx of American dollars will somehow encourage ordinary Cubans to revolt against and eventually topple the Castro regime is, well, naïve in the extreme.

But here is a snippet of information you don’t read often.

According to Gutierrez, the US already supplies one-third of the island’s food and medicine, on “humanitarian” grounds.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Grateful Cubans. Again.

Our friend Henry Gomez over at Babalu recently reported on a “debate” between Carlos Alberto Montaner, the Cuban-born journalist and author, and Ignacio Ramonet, the well-known Castro apologist.

The debate was published in the January-February edition of the magazine Foreign Policy under the general theme, "Was Fidel good for Cuba?"

Well, the feedback from readers is now in – and the responses make for intriguing reading.

Perhaps the pick of the crop comes from Wayne Smith, a one-time State Department official who was head of the US interest section in Havana in the late 1970s and who now makes a living as an academic, commenting largely on Cuban affairs.

“During the years that Cuba benefited from its markedly favourable trade relationship with the Soviet Union, it developed the most egalitarian society in the world,” Mr Smith argues.

“Its citizens couldn’t speak their minds, perhaps, but they were guaranteed food, housing, free healthcare, and education.”

Egalitarian? Guaranteed food? Housing? Must have been a very different Cuba to the place where I grew up because in that Cuba, there was never, ever any guarantee of food or housing. The only guarantee you got was a guaranteed rationing book - la libreta.

But even if we assume Mr Smith is right, why not have guaranteed food, housing, healthcare and education AND the freedom to speak your mind without fearing ending up in prison? Or worse.

Why should Cubans be the only people in the world expected to be grateful for food, housing, education and healthcare but to not be allowed to speak their mind?

Would Americans such as Mr Smith agree to such a deal? I wonder.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Great moments in spin

Reuters reports that a plaque has been unveiled in the Sierra Maestra to commemorate the 50th anniversary of what turned out to be one of the most memorable moments in political spin in recent history.

The plaque marks the spot where an eager reporter from The New York Times, Herbert Matthews, interviewed a thirtysomething Cuban lawyer turned guerrilla leader, Fidel Castro.

The interview ensured Castro enormous favourable coverage not just in the US media but inside Cuba, too, with Matthews describing the rebel commander as an "educated, dedicated fanatic" and "a man of ideals, of courage and of remarkable qualities of leadership."

It was the beginning of the Castro "legend".

In fact, however, it was nothing but good, old fashioned PR, as the dictator himself admitted a few years later.

Much to Matthews' embarrassment, Castro bragged that he only had 18 men at the time, but made them pass in front of the obviously not very inquisitive reporter several times to exaggerate his fighting force and impress the Americans.

Matthews, who died in 1977, fell for it. Hook, line and sinker.

Sadly, he wasn't the last Western reporter to fall for the hype, either ...

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Google, you've got nothing to fear

You may have read elsewhere that Cuban computer programmers have developed the island's first Internet search engine.

Which is great to hear although it will be of no use to 99.9 per cent of Cubans, who are forbidden by the Castro regime from accessing the Internet. Too dangerous, they reckon.

But even those few Cubans lucky enough to be allowed access to the outside world may be a tad disappointed by the new search engine - it doesn't search the Web, but only those sites previously screened and approved by the regime.

Most exciting of all, we are told, the new search engine has a special facility that allows users to search through a supposedly comprehensive database of Fidel Castro's many and lengthy speeches.

Well, not all that comprehensive.

A search for one of those early speeches the then fresh-faced Castro delivered back in January 1959, promising to hold free and fair elections within 18 months, failed to come up with any results. Zilch.

I am sure this little oversight will be rectified by the developers in due course.

Friday, February 16, 2007

A visa to Cuba

New documents made public earlier this week show that Anne Frank's father tried desperately to get visas to Cuba in the months before the family was forced into hiding.

According to news reports, Otto Frank tried to arrange for his family - wife Edith, daughters Margot and Anne and his mother-in-law - to go to Cuba or to the US.

He wrote to relatives, friends and officials during 1941 seeking their help, with limited success.

But the family did manage to secure one visa to Cuba, which was then cancelled in December 1941 after the Germans declared war on the US.

The family went into hiding in July 1942 and spent two years in a secret annex in a warehouse in Amsterdam before being found out and arrested by the occupying Nazis.

Anne Frank wrote her famous diary during the time in hiding – it has sold an estimated 75 million copies worldwide.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Oh, THAT embrago ...

News out today that may surprise those of you who thought the US had placed a debilitating trade and commercial embargo on Cuba.

Latest figures compiled by a Washington-based group called the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, show that the Communist-run island remained "one of the more important markets for American farmers" last year.

As you can read here, US food exports to Cuba totalled $US340.4 million ($A437.5 million) last year, compared to $US350 million ($A449.84 million) in 2005 and $US392 million ($A503.82 million) in 2004.

In fact, despite all that the huffing and puffing from Havana, the US was the top exporter of food to Cuba in 2004 and 2005. The figures for 2006 are not yet available.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Wish you were here?

A British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, today publishes an article on Cuba that should be required reading for anyone thinking of visiting the island.

Under the headline, "Cubans feel betrayed by tourist playground", the article looks at how ordinary Cubans feel about the tourist invasion orchestrated by the Castro regime over the past decade or so to prop up the economy following the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

The reporter points out that most Cubans struggle to survive on an average wage of less than £10 a month to buy food to supplement the meagre rations they get from the State.

On the other hand, visiting foreigners can spend almost double that on a taxi ride to the airport or on a meal in one of Old Havana's state-run restaurants.

Now, I grant you that this income and spending gap between rich Western tourists and locals is not a purely Cuban phenomenon. It is evident in most Third World countries.

But there is a key difference in Cuba, as made clear by one of those quoted by the paper, the dissident economist, Oscar Espinosa.

"It sticks in the throat," said Mr Espinosa, who was jailed in 2003 for criticising the Castro regime's economic strategy and who is now free on conditional releasesaid.

"Such obvious inequality in a country where for decades the people have laboured in the mistaken belief that they are creating a classless society. The truth is we have created a paradise for tourists and those that live off them, but for the rest of us, daily life gets worse.”

Read the article here.

H/T Babalu Team.

From the horse's mouth

Surely, this must be the quote of the day:

"The wild colt of new technologies can and must be controlled."

It comes from the Cuban Minister for Communications, Ramiro Valdes, speaking today in Havana. He was referring to the Internet, which he described as one of the tools used by the capitalist world for “global extermination”.

I kid you not.

For those of you who don’t recall, before his latest incarnation in the communications portfolio, Valdes was for many years the feared head of the Castro regime’s highly efficient secret police.

And Cuba has among the lowest rates of Internet penetration anywhere in the world.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Here's to the Czechs, etc

There is no love lost between the Castro regime and its former “fraternal friends” in Eastern Europe.

Ever since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent disappearance of the old Soviet Empire, Fidel Castro has been running a spectacularly unsuccessful propaganda war against its one-time allies.

In exchange, the new democratic states of Eastern Europe have done what so many in Western Europe and elsewhere have failed to do for the best part of 50 years: stand up to the dictator.

And so, we are back in the trenches …

The regime in Havana is squealing at the moment about proposals by a group of former communist nations to encourage the European Union to re-examine its long-term relations with the island.

The group is led by the Czechs (again!) and includes among its members Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania and Slovenia.

According to the Castro regime, these latest developments are part of a new evil “conspiracy” against Cuba, a "plot" designed to “topple” the Communist regime on the island, destroy the “revolution”, etc, etc.

As for the Eastern Europeans, well, as far as Havana is concerned, they are just a bunch of boot-lickers in the pay of the US. Of course.

You can read the Czech response here.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Business news

You know how the Castro regime claims that the Cuban economy grew by a staggering 12.5 per cent last year? With even more spectacular growth ahead?

Well, here is another take.

The highly-respected Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has just ranked Cuba among the world's worst business environments, as you can read here.

As part of its annual international wrap, the London-based EIU surveyed 82 nations - and Cuba came in at number 80, just ahead of Angola and Iran.

The problem? Tight government regulations. Supply shortages. Sky-high utility bills. Unmotivated workers. Dismal customer service.

Even Chinese executives in Havana, who are currently favoured by the regime, find huge obstacles doing business with their Communist brothers.

One Chinese executive, who "declined to be named for fear of Cuban reprisals", was quoted as saying: "Our company does business with 46 countries, and Cuba is the only one where we cannot have a commercial representative to find clients and service them."

What's more, Cuba is reportedly the only country where foreign business are forbidden from hiring local employees directly. Instead, businesses must hire them through government agencies - and they must pay the employees in hard currency through those very same agencies.

But as the EIU found, Cuban employees receive only a small proportion of the pay.

Guess who keeps the rest?

Friday, February 09, 2007

We interrupt this program ...

You may recall that some months ago, the Castro regime warned Cubans that it would crack down on “illegal” satellite dishes used to capture broadcasting signals from outside the island.

Well, the official propaganda sheet of the regime, Granma, has just published a full page story detailing what it calls "Caso Antena", an investigation into the prohibited satellite dishes.

The end result?

An unknown number of Cubans have been arrested and fined up to USD 44,000 for building and then selling the illegal dishes.

This is a big fine in anyone’s language but especially so in Cuba where the monthly average wage is about USD 14.00.

And those caught are facing long prison sentences.

Now, why is the Castro regime so keen to stamp out illegal dishes? Is it because they are worried about copyright breaches, perhaps? Safety considerations? Because the dishes don't meet planning standards?

None of the above.

The regime is worried that the illegal dishes are used by Cubans to tune into programs from the US described by Granma in characteristic language, as “culturally inappropriate” and “subversive”.

It’s not the dishes that worries them. It’s the content.

For the record, Associated Press reports that there is indeed a government-approved satellite television service in Cuba.

Sadly for ordinary Cubans earning USD 14.00 a month, AP says the service is available “only to resident foreigners, tourists and a select group of officials” – and they still need a “special license” to receive programming from the US.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Their man in London

Here is another name to add to the list of high-profile, well-educated and otherwise rational Western Europeans who retain a soft spot for Fidel Castro and his henchmen.

His name is Brian Wilson (no, not that Brian Wilson). This one is a former Labour Party minister in Great Britain who retired from Parliament a couple of years ago.

Described as “the only member of the [Blair] government to maintain regular contact with Cuba between 1997 and 2005”, Mr Wilson has written an opinion piece in today’s edition of The Guardian newspaper.

His central premise is that the US is totally wrong about Cuba. And that the British government should disassociate itself from Washington when it comes to approaching the Castro regime in its current incarnation.

Dialogue is all we need to make things right.

And he describes those supposedly in charge in Cuba at the moment - Raul Castro, Carlos Lage, Felipe Perez Roque, etc - as people “I have met and respect”.

“Believe me, these are high quality people who would be assets to any government - and are now firmly in control of Cuba,” the former minister opines.

“Each of them is ideologically committed to maintaining Cuba's independence and political system. But none of them is the unbending ideologue of Washington caricature, far less an authoritarian denier of human rights.”

Bet that's news to most of you: Raul Castro, defended of human rights.

As for Fidel Castro, Mr Wilson predicts that when the seriously ill dictator finally kicks the bucket, “there will be outpourings of heartfelt sorrow among the Cuban people”.

He may be right – just as there was an outpouring of “heartfelt sorrow” in the old Soviet Union when Joseph Stalin died. It still didn't make him less of a tyrant.

Anyway, you can read his views here.

Religious Affairs

Back in early December, we informed you that the presiding bishop of the Episcopalians in the United States, Katharine Jefferts Schori, was to visit Cuba in early 2007 to speak to the faithful.

There are believed to be about 10,000 members of the Church in Cuba, spread over 46 parishes.

Well, Jefferts Schori has just returned to New York after what appears to have been a whirlwind tour of the island.

According to the Church’s own media release summarising the visit, the bishop told the faithful during one of her sermons that there was "a sea of possibilities" for ending human suffering - from the local sharing of nutritious vegetables to caring for the elderly and infirm.

She then referred to how the "abundant life that God dreams for all creation" overcomes the death inherent in "oppressive and cruel systems."

Which may or may not have been a reference to the Castro regime.

The media release also says that while visiting “government offices” in Havana on February 1, the presiding bishop “also inquired of officials as to the status of prisoners incarcerated by the Cuban government for actions contrary to policies of the socialist regime”.

We don’t know how the representatives of the regime reacted – similar “inquiries” have been completely ignored for the past 49 years, no matter whom is doing the asking.

Certainly, the Castro apparatchiks would have been much happier to hear that during the sermon, Jefferts Schori also called on the U.S. government “to end its economic and political embargo against Cuba”. For humanitarian reasons, you understand.

According to the press release, her comments were received “with a standing ovation” from those present.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Alive and well

Forty nine years ago, Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba with the support of a majority of the population, promising to bring democracy, prosperity and justice to the largest of the West Indies.

It didn't take long for the promises about democracy and justice to be ditched - about 18 months, in fact.

As for prosperity ...

In 1962, as Castro formally turned Cuba into a Communist outpost of the old Soviet Union, he introduced Russian-style food rationing – the dreaded rationing libreta.

But it was OK, folk, because he promised the measure would last just 12 months.

Well, see that Reuters photograph at the top of this post? It was taken yesterday. And yes, that’s the libreta. Alive and well after all this time.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Back in Guantanamo

I remember visiting Guantanamo once, when I was growing up in Cuba back in the 1960s.

It was quite a trip. All the way from Banes, where we lived, to Guantanamo via Baracoa, where my mother had some distant relatives.

I must have been eight or so but I clearly remember a few things about the trip. Like the fact that it took us more than 24 hours to get there since public transport was almost non-existent in revolutionary Cuba back then.

And Guantanamo seemed like a huge town, buzzing with life, especially when compared to sleepy Banes.

One other thing I remember: everyone we met in Guantanamo seemed to have some connection with La Base, which is how everyone referred to the US naval base just a few minutes out of town.

For many guantanameros, the US base was a kind of forbidden, magical place, where there were never any food shortages, no committees for the defence of the Revolution keeping an eye on you, and no queues. It was El Norte right there in Cuba. But totally out of bounds.

Why am I telling you all this?

Well, I got thinking about Guantanamo today after reading this interesting piece by Reuters about the town in eastern Cuba that is home to some 200,000 residents – plus the US naval base.

According to the reporter, the international “furore” about Camp Delta seems to have “largely passed by the baking-hot streets of Guantanamo”, where life continues normally. Or as normally as life can continue in a place like Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

Although the naval base is just 18 miles from the town, it seems that the only US presence in Guantanamo itself is the radio station that broadcasts from inside the base.

The station is quite popular with younger Cubans, including a 28-year-old named Carlos, who is quoted as saying: "The music the Americans play is fantastic. You can't hear that on our radio stations.”

As for La Base, the reporter found that “like many younger Cubans, Carlos sees the United States as a land of opportunity where he would go if he could”.

Obviously, some things never change.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Banking News

Just weeks after two large Swiss banks, UBS and Credit Suisse, cut all commercial ties with the Castro regime, one of Australia's largest banks has followed suit.

The ANZ Bank has revealed that it will stop doing business with a handful of countries that are on what the media have described as a "US black list" - such as Iran, Sudan and Cuba.

According to this report in The Sydney Morning Herald, the ANZ went through 330,000 related transactions going back to 2001 and uncovered 42 instances where it might have inadvertently breached US regulations.

These are understood to have included dealings with Cuban mineral exporters.

Now, when the Swiss banks announced their decision last November, it didn't take long for the Communist regime to respond in characteristic fashion - by attacking UBS and Credit Suisse as "pitiful", "submissive" and "lackeys of the Empire". Of course.

Let's see how long it takes Havana to respond to the ANZ announcement.

Goodbye, Mr Knight

In case you haven't heard, the man known as Celia Cruz's cabecita de algodon has died in California, aged 85.

Predo Knight, who was married to the legendary Cuban singer for more than 40 years, was also her musical director and inseparable companion, as you can read here.

Mr Knight's health deteriorated after his wife's death in mid 2003.

Referring to Celia Cruz, he told The Miami Herald a couple of years ago: ''Sometimes I just want my time to come already so that I can be with her.''

Friday, February 02, 2007

Happy, happy Cubans

Another day, another article about Cuba, the great tourist destination …

You know the type: travel writer gets a free tip to Cuba paid for by the tour operator, has a terrific time walking the streets of Old Havana, visits La Bodeguita del Medio, drinks copious mojitos/daiquiris, smokes cigars and is totally won over by those happy, happy Cubans who seem to spend much of the day dancing in the middle of the street.

The latest effort appears in the travel section of several Australian newspapers owned by News Ltd.

The travel writer in question travelled to Cuba as a guest of The Captain’s Choice, a seriously upmarket Australian tour operator that organises all-inclusive, luxury tours to exotic destinations. Like Cuba.

And as expected, she was generally enchanted by Fidel Castro’s paradise.

But it seems that not all of those on the tour were convinced.

“Some of our group become distressed during a visit to Havana's state cigar factory, angrily branding it ‘a sweatshop’,” the reporter writes.

“Perhaps our group is guilty of judging Cuban living and working conditions by Australian standards.

“While it would be wrong to make light of the poverty that afflicts Cuba, the people do seem content – more so than your average Westerner. The complete absence of capitalism means Cubans are not obsessed with getting the latest plasma TV, the biggest house or reading the latest celebrity gossip magazine.

“Instead, people get together to talk, socialise and spend time with their families and friends.”

See? You don’t need capitalist luxuries like a plasma TV or a big house of even a magazine to be happy in revolutionary Cuba.

Now, for the record, if you’d gone on The Captain’s Choice tour of Cuba, you would have travelled in your own, chartered and “fully staffed” Qantas 747 plane, you would have stayed only at five star hotels, and you would have had your own English-speaking guides throughout – plus a “team of escorts” to help with luggage, etc.

Oh, yes, and your own private doctor, available around the clock.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Change or no change?

You know that old cliché about not being able to see the woods for the trees?

I sometimes wonder whether we spend so much time and effort examining in minute detail what is supposed to be going on in Cuba (from the outside) that we miss the bigger picture.

For instance, as far as I can see, there has been no fundamental political change on the island since Fidel Castro was forced to step aside due to serious illness mid last year.

Well, one thing has changed: ordinary Cubans are no longer forced to listen to the dictator’s interminable and increasingly incoherent harangues every second night on television.

Otherwise … situation normal?

A Reuters correspondent in Havana, Anthony Boadle, has written an interesting article about the changes he has perceived on the island over the past six months, under the headline, “Debate grows in Cuba six months after hand-over”.

It’s a fairly optimistic piece that hints at an increasing openness within sections of the regime – a kind of Cuban apertura.

To back up his theory, Boadle quotes dissidents and outside observers as well as Cubans whom understandably, declined to be identified.

Boadle also refers to “unprecedented” investigations that have appeared in the tightly controlled official media in the past few months uncovering poor service and highlighting a shortage of consumer goods and other “economic shortcomings”.

He also points to the current controversy among some intellectuals on the island over the apparent return to public life of the bureaucrat who was in charge of cultural policy during the 1970s, when hundreds of writers, movie-makers and academics were targeted as ideologically impure.

Now, this is all true. But from where I am, these do not seem to be major policy changes.

Instead, I see them as a clever if inevitably futile attempt by the regime to shift the focus away from the real story: the impending demise of the older Castro.

Then again, perhaps I am missing the bigger picture. Perhaps I am too close. Perhaps I can see the trees alright but beyond that … nada.

Photograph: Claudia Daut, Reuters